Sponsorship: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation – Money for documentaries on the human condition

If superheros needed a funding agency, they'd go to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of the largest in the United States. The Chicago-based private grantmaking institution is dedicated to solving the ills of the world and improving...
April 1, 1998

If superheros needed a funding agency, they’d go to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of the largest in the United States. The Chicago-based private grantmaking institution is dedicated to solving the ills of the world and improving the human condition on a global scale.

At the most general level, this means promoting healthy communities, peace among nations and economic sustainability. Specifically, it means documentary filmmakers, like all applicants to the Foundation, are encouraged to look at ways to develop understanding of poverty and economic inequality, violent civil conflict, population dynamics, environmental conservation, children and youths, arms reduction, ecosystems, reproductive choices and a host of other topics.

As the backbone of its efforts, the Peabody-winning MacArthur Foundation supports the arts, which, it states, ‘Have the ability to engage everyone, binding people and communities together across many barriers. They are a powerful means of enhancing individual development and strengthening communities through personal and cultural expression and celebration.’

Created in 1978 by the late billionaire businessman, John MacArthur, the Foundation’s us$4 billion endowment hands out about us$2.7 million per year specifically to American and Latin American documentary producers who contribute to its philosophies.

The most renowned of the Foundation’s projects is Hoop Dreams, the affirming basketball doc that won the audience award at the Sundance Festival. The MacArthur Foundation has also financed journalist Bill Moyer, who investigates topics such as religion, creativity and youth violence on pbs. Other sponsored work for pbs includes Rights and Wrongs, War on Poverty and the p.o.v. series.

‘We select projects that advance democratic values and diversity,’ says communications director Ray Boyer. ‘We support documentaries about underrepresented communities and projects that strengthen the capacity of independent producers and cross-cultural understanding.’

In 1996, Lumiere Productions, New York, received us$100,000 in support of production and outreach costs for With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America; Mexico City’s Producciones Amaranta received us$30,000 in support of a documentary about the history of Latin American cinema; New Images Productions in Berkeley was given us$28,000 for Street Soldiers, about the anti-violence program of the Omega Boys Club; Stone Lantern Films in Upper Nyack was given us$350,000 for School, a four-part series on the history of American public education; and in San Francisco, Paradigm Productions received us$20,000 to complete The Fights in the Fields, about Cesar Chavez.

Most of the Foundation’s grantmaking is carried out through two programs: Human and Community Development supports work in community development, the arts, economic opportunity, youth development, education, mental health, research and other areas; and Global Security and Sustainability, which focuses upon issues of peace, population and the environment.

The Foundation’s manifesto states: ‘We believe that communities, to be effective, must address the barriers of discrimination and the inequalities of power, income, and opportunity that limit the development of individuals. We also believe that the development of individuals and the effectiveness of communities are deeply interdependent.’

Documentarians are asked to explore the confluence of contemporary issues in a way that sparks debate and education which advances global security and sustainability. While 1,000 documentary applicants are vetted each year, only about 50 actually receive funding.

There is no set format for application. Candidates are asked to send a short letter of inquiry about the proposed project, how its fits with the Foundation’s goals, costs and the audience that will ultimately see the project.

The grantmakers at the Foundation look for projects that cross traditional boundaries and categories en route to bringing ‘significant’ work to the debates around the human condition and global security.

Other 1996 Grants >

Canal 22, Televisi—n Metropolitana, Mexico City

us$25,000 for a series

about cultural and

environmental issues

KTEH San Jose Public Television, San Jose us$50,000 for Cadillac Desert, a series on water policies in the American West, and The Last Oasis, about the effect of dam construction on developing nations

Film Arts Foundation,

San Francisco

us$100,000 for Faith, Hope, and Capital, about

community-development financial institutions

WGBH Educational Foundation, Boston

us$200,000 for a doc about international refugee issues and the work of Fred Cuny

for Frontline

William Greaves

Productions, New York

us$100,000 for Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.